News  Conference examines sustainability with money in mind

Building sustainable products is an excellent business decision, according to both keynote speakers at last week’s “Awake,” McGill’s Business Conference on Sustainability.

About 70 delegates from universities across Canada attended the conference, where they participated in workshops with industry leaders, listened to two speeches, and attended a sustainability fair with campus groups.

In his opening keynote Thursday, Steven Guilbeault – a founding member of Equiterre, a Montreal based-environmental organization,and former Greenpeace spokesperson – said that the effects of human-induced global climate change on the Earth could be even greater than scientists previously anticipated.

“It’s entirely up to us as a global society to decide how much climate change we are willing to live with, along with the consequences,” he said.

According to Guilbeault, humans need to immediately attack the root of the problem – greenhouse gas emissions – to adapt solutions to address the global rise in temperatures that 150 years of carbon emissions have already locked in.

“Adaptation is an important thing, but there are those people who say all we can do is adapt,” he said. “I’d like these people to go and explain to the population of Miami how they should adapt to a two-metre sea level rise.”

Praising the developments of renewable energy and sustainable transportation initiatives around the world, Guilebeaut reminded the audience that even greater shifts in thinking must take place in order to substantially cut global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Even if everyone is driving a hybrid in 2011, there will be 9-million of us then. That’s a lot of cars, and that’s a lot of metal,” he said. “We have to rely on more transit; we have to rethink the way we build our city.”

On Friday night, Robert Weese, the Vice President of Government and External Relations at General Electric Canada (GE), presented his company’s “ecomagination” program, which outlines measures to help GE and its customers reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts on the Earth.

A central tenet of that program is to raise GE’s annual revenues from “ecomagination” products to $25-billion by 2013. According to Weese, his company’s primary motivation for researching and building sustainable products is its financial incentive.

“Green is green, and we don’t make any apologies for that,” he said, referring to the returns made on green products. “We’re not in this business because it’s a responsible thing to do…. We wouldn’t be in it as a company if we couldn’t make money out of it.”

The company’s program also includes goals to reduce company-wide absolute greenhouse gas emissions by one per cent and use of water by 20 per cent by 2013.

Weese stressed that his company’s ability to adapt to a constantly changing market has allowed it to survive for over 130 years.

“I think ‘ecomagination’ is our latest adaptation to a changing world,” Weese said.

The annual conference was organized by a team of students from the Management Undergraduate Society.